Back to the Future

Imagine for a second that Northwestern enters the fourth quarter with a slight lead and manages to grind down on offense while not being able to stop our opponent. Say, we lose by 11.  This on top of being a double-digit favorite against a team that was downright awful the previous year. Now, instead of NIU, imagine it is a Big Ten game. Say, Minnesota. Welcome back to 2009.

Sometimes the past gets a bit blurry and you round off the edges of seasons. The 2009 season was capped by what most of us would agree was the wildest and most entertaining game in Fitz’s tenure – the Outback Bowl against Auburn. As a reader pointed out to me in a recent email, the outcome of that season would’ve been extremely hard to imagine given the events that transpired early in the year. Northwestern opened 2009 with a romp against over-matched Towson 47-14. The very next week we blew a three TD lead and needed a last second FG to escape…wait for it….Eastern Michigan.  Then, as described above we went to Syracuse and lost to Greg Paulus and Syracuse in a game in which we couldn’t stop their wide receiver. Next up, the 35-24 loss to Minnesota – at home. At the time a New Year’s Day bowl seemed unfathomable. Six wins was optimistic. Yet, NU bounced back and turned its season around after a thrilling comeback at Purdue and mounting the single largest comeback (Indiana) in school history led by a spunky fifth string walk-on DB (here’s to you Ricky Weina).  The season turnaround was on.

2009 schedule results iimage

The very same reader started listing off the names of guys on that team. Specifically RBs – guys like Arby Fields and Jacob Schmidt. We went in to Kinnick and ruined Iowa’s perfect season. We beat a top 15 Wisconsin team. Yet, we struggled to put away a couple of bad MAC teams. We lost games to inferior teams and looked way out of sync at times.

Before you point out the fact we weren’t coming off of a losing stretch of seven out of eight and an off-season of union turmoil consider the talent level on the two teams. Mike Kafka was the star QB and Dan Persa was called on in relief when Kafka got injured in the Penn State game. Sure, two of the better QBs we’ve had – no doubt. But don’t kid yourself. The talent level on the 2014 team dwarfs that of the 2009 team. Now, when it comes to heart? Well, that remains to be seen.

The larger point is that 2009 team had long stretches of offensive quagmire. Yet, as the season emerged so did the let it rip factor.  The Auburn game is one we point to as a classic NU “let it rip” on offense game.  It was fun as hell to watch, even if Kafka had five INTs on the day.  There wasn’t a fan criticizing play-calling in that game. I still applaud Fitz’s attempt to go for the win on a fake FG play (known as “fastball”) that was an homage to his predecessor Randy Walker. Loved it. Take a look at the below and remember this was the same season we lost to a terrible Syracuse team, a bad Minnesota team and narrowly escaped a bad Eastern Michigan team:

The larger point in this back to the future case study of a season is that all is not lost. Yet. My conversation with Dan Persa about the 2014 team being the most athletic “by far” (his opinion)  of any NU team he’s seen or been apart of gives me hope.  Clearly, the lack of preparedness in the Cal game was an issue. Clearly, the losing stretch of one win in nine games is an issue. But, we have 11 games left and a win on Saturday, followed by a win against Western Illinois and – well, let’s reserve judgment on this season until we start seeing Big Ten play.

When you look back at the 2009 season – one in retrospect we agree is a highlight year – it gives me hope this thing can turn around.

  • PurpleHayes

    The 2009 Iowa game is one of those road trips permanently etched in the “Perfect!” column for me (and there are not too many entries–1996 Wisconsin is another example). Fabulous weather, high drama, friendly rival fans, and an unexpected win. If only the Cal loss were merely a set-up for moments like that to come again in 2014. Bring it on!

  • Jonathan Hodges

    Minor correction: in the Outback Bowl, the “fastball” play in OT was actually on a 4th down and was in lieu of a FG attempt (although the end was the same: Fitz was going for the win instead of prolonging the game by going for the tie).

    • LTP

      Thanks for the correction. Indeed was the fake FG. Who can forget how clean his uniform was? Was a great call.

  • JM

    The season-closing Wisconsin game –which was basically a showdown for Jan. 1 bowl– is maybe the most underrated win of the Fitz era, and arguably the biggest B1G game he’s won. (Iowa that year was against a higher-ranked team, but it was also a “house money” situation where NU had nothing to lose.) That is, in retrospect, my favorite season of the Fitz era.

    • my favorite NU win was the home game over Iowa in 2010. Personal reasons… that was my 1st year of grad school, so 1st year as fan, and the first NW game I attended. But also a big win over a highly ranked team.
      Of course, it also ended Persa’s career. Sigh.

  • Mark Wheaton

    I could care less what happened in prior years. What is the financial disclaimer, “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results”? Same here. Right now no one know how 2014 will turn out. But to speculate that because A happened after B in a prior year is fruitless.

    • mkasa

      I don’t think LTP thinks that a magical season is definitely in store for us this year.

      But he is claiming that it _could_ happen.

    • LTP

      Not saying it will, saying it has. Indeed 2009 has no bearing on 2014, but the point was to show from a fan perspective that there is a lot of season left before we judge the year.

  • just a thought

    Sorry..it’s all irrelevant. Blog crap so to speak. Van House was terrible. Simian choked. Coaching staff didn’t respond to much of anything. Prater got two balls thrown his way and caught both. NU doesn’t know there are two edges to every defense and it is legal to try and run them. Our punter’s kicks weren’t good enough for most high school teams in Ohio and our kick returnees and punt returners have been taught to act like they are in are in a holdup… you know hands up. We don’t run a wide open hurry up offense anymore and our defensive backs are positioned somewhere between Evanston and Kiev on every 3rd and long. We talked up our speed all summer and then never used it in our rushing offense or downfield on passes. So we can blog it to death but most of all this weighty failure is on the backs of the coaching staff. And we can love Fitz to death but it’s grow up time and great coaches grow season to season. Fitz and his staff have been making the same mistakes for 12 straight games now. Change and growth go hand in hand. Best to a bunch of great kids this Saturday but it’s time they got some solid coaching help.

  • just a thought

    Oh..and Hodges…. having been at the outback bowl game with auburn….fitz was forced to go for the score…. auburn broke his kicker’s leg on the play before… when he was going for the tie with a field goal… he had no other field goal kicker dressed for that game…. it was a great game and fits gets credit for the coaching effort but don’t make him out a great chance taker in that game he had no choice unless Kafka was practicing drop kicks on the sideline and we missed it.

    • mkasa

      That’s not true — place kicker Steve Flaherty was dressed for (and played in) the Outback Bowl!

      http://www.nusports.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/flaherty_steve00.html

      • Greg Rossiter

        Yes, and Flaherty was on the field as the kicker for Fastball. FWIW, Demos’s right (plant) ankle was sprained, not broken, on the previous play when Demos missed the tying FG in OT. Consensus in our section of the stadium at the time was that going for the TD was the right call. Agree Fitz needs to take more calculated chances.

  • mkasa

    Good post LTP. I really think that the “doom and gloom” mentality has gotten out of hand.

    Go ‘Cats!

  • “But don’t kid yourself. The talent level on the 2014 team dwarfs that of the 2009 team. Now, when it comes to heart? Well, that remains to be seen.”

    That’s the thing… on paper, this should be a better team than NW has had in a long time. Probably even better than 2012, IMO, though Mark’s transfer may have changed that. But that hasn’t translated to the field. So frustrating.

    • but here’s hoping they can turn it around. I think this game says a lot more about the season than last week.

      Win here, and they just had a bad half that cost them last week. Lose here (and look bad doing so), and they’re 0-2 and looking to be in serious trouble.

    • LProf

      Maybe I am missing something, but what makes anybody think the talent level on this team is so high? There are a couple of solid but certainly not spectacular receivers; offensive line has bright spots but is spotty; running back situation is a mess though hopefully Jackson will show us something; defensive line is undistinguished as is linebacking; defensive backfield has serious problems; we have a walk-one kicker and a terrible punter. So where the hell is all this talent you are all speaking about? It seems, at best, to be a bunch of hardworking journeymen–surely not enough to succeed in the BiG. Am I being too hard? Am I wrong? Please convince me that I am. I would love to be wrong here.

      • LProf

        Oh, and the QB, while apparently a really nice kid, is more reminiscent of Nick Kreinbrink than he is of Baseanez or Kafka. Again, I dearly hope I have completely misjudged this situation–but I fear I haven’t.

        • Chasmo

          Are you basing that assessment on Trevor’s entire career or just a few selected games such as the one with Cal?
          Trevor has had many outstanding games for NU in the previous three years, such as leading NU for the game winning score at Syracuse, or leading NU to a victory at Illinois, being just two examples. I can’t remember one good game Nick had.

      • gocatsgo2003

        Physically, the talent on this team is much better than any in the recent past. The problem is that doesn’t necessarily translate to being better football players, which is where we have a whole lot to prove after the Cal game.

      • LTP

        I trust recent players’ opinions, staffers, etc..It has been pretty consistent.

        • LProf

          I understand, but I would like to hear some specific names of players who exceed our normal talent level. Heck, we had a better running back (Bob Christian) and wide receiver (Richard Buchanan) when we went winless! And ok, Trevor maybe isn’t Nick Kreinbrink (chalk that up to hyperbole), but he sure isn’t up to the level of Kafka, Bache, Persa, Brett, etc. So where is all this talent? I would rather not accept a conclusory assertion even by experts–especially when they have an undertone of bias.

  • Henry in Rose Bowl Country

    What this shows is how far you can get with a very good QB even with mediocre talent. Now we apparently have better talent but nobody close to the quality of Persa, Kafka or Basenez unless somehow Siemian begins to show the form he displayed in the brief periods when he was at his best in the past two seasons. If I was running things I would see what Siemian can do against NIU. I’d do what A&M did against South Carolina – throw the ball on every down. Just run occasionally to cross them up and throw down the field. Siemian bailed NU out many times in the past but Fitzgerald always went with Colter. Always back to the conservative until he couldn’t afford to any longer. Let’s take the wraps off Siemian because it is the only chance we have. Let him get his rhythm and get his confidence back. He might be at least another Kafka which could be enough.

  • Greg Rossiter

    Regardless of the coaching and playing mistakes vs Cal, sure hope fans show up to support NU this Saturday.

  • cardiac cat fan

    I love how you bring to light how important “letting it rip” was to NU’s success in the later part of the 2009 season. You would think that Mick McCall would have realized that after the season, but here we are 4 years later and all you’ll hear from him on his play-calling philosophy is “we’re going to take what the defense gives us.” For this 2014 team to win they’re going to have to let it rip.

    I am optimistic NU’s coaching staff got a wakeup call this past weekend and can right this ship – the talent is there. Many fans on this website relate their Wildcat fandom to Barnett and Walker lead teams that lived on the edge – yeah they lost some games they shouldn’t have in their time, but they played their style of Wildcat football which was both aggressive and creative. I know we can’t live in the past, but that philosophy Barnett and Walker employed of being aggressive and creative stands the test of time, especially when you’re still underdog. NU is still the underdog and will be until they win the B1G title.

    I’ll be there cheering on NU vs NIU this weekend. GO CATS!